“I’ve been all around the world/Everywhere is home/Drink wine with kings and The Rolling Stones/I’ve got a few scars from the battles I’ve won/’Cause I’m 74 years young.”
— Buddy Guy, “74 Years Young”
It took this long, at last, for Buddy Guy to get around to recording his valedictory lap. You know what I mean — the album where he can rest on his king-sized bed of laurels and look back on his long and illustrious and influential career. You know — the type of album B.B. King has been cutting for the past 20 years. Which is how long ago Guy stormed back into the collective consciousness of music fans with “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues.”
Funny thing is, though, this new album, “Living Proof,” doesn’t sound like anyone’s resting on anything.
To some extent, it’s definitely “The Buddy Guy Story” as committed to digital recording machines. But while it’s a life in song, it sure doesn’t sound like a final chapter. The man’s as fiery as he ever was.
The album was written primarily by Guy’s producer and drummer, Tom Hambridge, based on conversations with the influential blues guitar giant. (And if you’re a casual music fan and think Hendrix invented guitar pyrotechnics, go and listen to Guy’s early recordings on Chess. Guy and a bunch of others — Freddie King, T-Bone Walker, B.B., etc.) What we get is an album with the performer’s passion often laid bare, no sleeves on which to hide his heart, which really isn’t unexpected.
It doesn’t get better than the opening song, the self-explanatory “74 Years Young,” about a full life well lived, but it doesn’t get much worse, either. It’s a song that will sneak up on you if you’re not careful, and in retrospect, maybe it’s better if it does. (If you like surprises, jump to the next graf and skip the rest of this one.) Guy starts with this slow, lazy, old-bluesman-on-the-porch-playing-his-acoustic-guitar sound, deeply savoring every show, every woman, every shining moment, and then — shazam! — comes bridge time and he starts shredding like a corporate criminal with the feds beating down his door. He blazes and howls and belies his age by 50 years — OK, factor in some maturity; make it 40. And all you can say is “Damn!”
And that sets up the next song, “Thank Me Someday,” from both story and musical standpoints. Guy sings about growing up on a Lousiana cotton plantation — “Little tin roof shack and a third-grade education/Two-string wood guitar/I taught myself how to play — yes I did.” — keeping his family up all night as he taught himself to play (“And I told them that you’ll thank me one day”). It starts off ominously, with a cup of Louisiana voodoo, then slowly morphs into some more fierce abuse of guitar strings in the upper registers.
Guy doesn’t wait until the bridge to get ornery on “Too Soon,” a kicking-out-my-woman song with a stomping beat, a pounding piano and snorting guitars and attitude. “On the Road,” a driving tune in more ways than one punctuated by The Memphis Horns, also doesn’t wait to get to the good parts, though he saves plenty of shredding for the bridge. And “Guess What,” another bit of domestic disharmony, features the angriest — damn near violent — shredding on the whole disc.
But lest you think his transmission is stuck in fifth or sixth, he gets plenty prayerful in his playing as well. The title song, a blues-meets-gospel tale of the power of prayer, is deliberate and relentless in approach and full of passion, yet tastefully restrained at the same time. “Everybody’s Got to Go” is a gem, a bit of advice Guy got from his mother: “Keep your eyes on that kingdom waiting down the road ‘cross that River Jordan.” It’s slow, reflective, a heaping of Southern gospel flavor with tasty guitar. It’s definitely a great song to be played at a memorial service.
The two guest appearances are the only overtly congratulatory moments on this celebration of a long life. “Where the Blues Begins,” a Memphis soul-flavored tune probing the point where life goes bad, is a fine mesh of Carlos Santana’s California smooth and Guy’s South-meets-Chicago raw. “Stay Around a Little Longer” is Guy and B.B.’s mutual-admiration moment, a sentimental meeting of two giants and longtime friends, not to mention Guy and one of his biggest influences. (And Reese Wynans’ organ playing should be noted here; he does a killer job throughout the album.) Even if you’re not prone to sentiment, you can excuse most probably one of King’s last summit meetings. And the only real clunker note on the album is “Key Don’t Fit,” a slow, loud stomp with a cliched blues double-entendre (“Now my key don’t fit your lock/but I’ll try to stick it in your door”).
If Guy decided to never record again — or say he gets called across the Jordan anytime soon — this would be a fine farewell. However, assuming he’ll be around for a few more years, chances are he’ll keep churning and blazing and howling to the bitter end. And it’ll be interesting to see if he can top this.
If you’re an artist and/or publicist who has a new album to check out and possibly review, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For disclosure’s sake: I bought this one.